“I was never very good at following the rules,” says Tony Geraci, director of food and nutrition services for 85,000-student Baltimore City Schools. Although this rule bending might have caused him some problems as a child, it’s this attitude that has enabled Geraci to make significant changes to the foodservice operation in his first 12 months with the district.
“I was a bad kid,” Geraci says about his childhood growing up in a rough part of New Orleans. “It was a couple of crazy European chefs who took me aside and said, ‘Look, you’re a knucklehead, but you’ve got real talent and we want to nurture that.’ I think that’s the thing that we forget sometimes. Every kid listens to a different voice, and maybe part of our job should be to hear that voice and nurture kids in a way that speaks to them.”
And that’s exactly what Geraci has done since coming to the district last July. He’s started a farm where students learn hands-on about farming and healthy eating; he’s started school gardens and student-run restaurants; and he’s returning to what he calls “real food” and away from prepared, over-processed products.
“I felt a sense of confidence about his ability to reform what are often very bureaucratic norms in school systems,” says Dr. Andes Alonzo, the district’s CEO. “Tony had the energy, commitment and vision to bring about really good things and to do them relatively quickly.”
Alonzo says Geraci’s drive was one of the main reasons he decided to offer the then vacant director’s position to Geraci in 2008. That, however, was not the first time the district had courted Geraci; he was offered the position several years before but turned it down. When Alonzo was hired in 2007, Geraci accepted the position. “Dr. Alonzo is a visionary and the right leader,” Geraci says. “He has allowed me to do the things that needed to get done to get the program going.”
Great Kids Farm: One of those things Geraci wanted to do was to transform an abandoned 33-acre lot that the district owned. The district was going to sell the lot to a used-car salesman, but Geraci persuaded the administration to let him start a farm on it instead. “The first week on the job, I was handed the keys to the farm and told it was mine to do with as I pleased,” Geraci says. “They also said, ‘We don’t have any money for the farm.’”
That didn’t stop Geraci. With no funding or help from the district, nor any farming experience, Geraci has created an organic farm, named Great Kids Farm, which now hosts hundreds of students each month and has led to the planting of more than 30 school gardens. The farm’s produce is also used in the district’s cafeterias.
Geraci says his business savvy enabled him to get the farm running. “I’m a good businessman. I’m good at finding dollars.” With money provided by the district to hire a dietitian, Geraci hired not only the dietitian but also a farm manager, Greg Strella. Together, Geraci and Strella developed a 16-item “wish list” of things they wanted to accomplish. Those items included planting orchards, populating the farm with chickens, bees and goats and getting commercial clients to help support the farm. Each of the 16 items has been accomplished.
Because the district provided no funding for the farm, Geraci turned to the community for help. The response, Geraci says, was overwhelming. “The story has really been about a city. I can’t tell you how many thousands of volunteers have come out to work. People want things to get better and they know the only way things are going to change is if they do it themselves.” In addition to volunteers’ manual help, the community also provided donations—and not just monetary ones. The farm’s goats, among other things, were donated by an area farmer.
But the farm doesn’t run on donations alone. The farm generates revenue by growing microgreens, which are sold to local restaurants. “It is important to create sustainable economic models,” Geraci says. “This way we can show the kids there are job opportunities and how food gets from farm to fork.”
The goal of the Great Kid Farm is to teach students about farming, healthy eating and life. Before visiting, the students decide what plants they want to grow in their school’s garden. Geraci and Strella then start those plants in one of the farm’s greenhouses. When the students visit the farm, they spend the day learning and eating, and when they return to their schools, they plant their own school garden.
“A lot of kids are so far removed from nature,” Geraci says. “You can talk to a kid about the virtues of eating wholesome food, but until that kid plucks a cherry tomato off a line he planted and pops it into his mouth and that flavor explosion happens, that’s a moment you cannot teach in a book. It’s that moment that forever changes the way that kid looks at food. It’s no longer a consumptive act; it becomes far greater. That’s the place where you can have a reasonable conversation about eating habits and their bodies.”
Geraci’s passion for the farm and his students is in some ways born out of an atonement for his past. “I was a food manufacture broker and I got very wealthy, but I did it on the backs of a lot of kids,” he says. “We have an entire generation of kids for whom fruit is a flavor and not a food. We have to get them back to a place where food is real. This is doable. We put a man on a moon in less than a decade and what I’m talking about is certainly not rocket science. We just need to get off of our asses, stop talking about it and holding our kids hostage to big food manufacturers and just do it.”
Real-world experience: “My philosophy is that everything I do needs to have a connection to a kid,” Geraci says. “If something doesn’t have a direct connection to a kid, it’s not worth doing.”
That philosophy is at play in another of Geraci’s initiatives—student-run restaurants. Junior- and senior-high students from the district’s culinary programs run the three restaurants, which are named Great Kids Café. The students have half-day externships, during which time they work in the restaurants and the district’s cafeterias and central kitchen. “The student will learn business and how to be successful and maybe they will springboard this opportunity into business or culinary school,” Geraci says.
Each of the three restaurants will have a different concept. One, in the district’s central office, is like a corporate B&I account, and another is a cross between a Starbucks and Panera Bread. Produce from the farm is used in the restaurants. The first location opened earlier this month.
Menu changes: Geraci is also making changes to the cafeterias’ offerings. All fruits and vegetables are grown in Maryland. Geraci started Meatless Mondays, with offerings such as red beans and rice, vegetarian lasagna and hummus wraps, and eliminated pizza as a daily menu selection to try to push students into trying different and healthier options. The schools are also making the switch from pre-plated meals to cooking meals in house.
Another of Geraci’s initiatives is called No Thank You Bites. The program is designed to get students to try new items. If the items go over well, Geraci adds them to the menus. Students who choose to participate are given a two-ounce bite of a fruit, vegetable or entrée to try. If they try the item, they are given a star. At the end of the month, the students with stars are invited to a constellation party, during which time Geraci and his cafeteria managers are able to talk in a non-threatening environment to the students about what they like and dislike about the foodservice program.
Another big project Geraci tackled was the district’s low breakfast participation, which was at 8,500 meals a day. Geraci got the district approved for Provision II breakfast and added multiple serving options. He started breakfast in the classroom, “second chance” breakfast and breakfast kiosks to give students every opportunity to participate. He also started a boxed grab-and-go breakfast program that contains a low-sugar cereal, 100% juice drink, a whole-grain snack and a carton of milk. To make the meals more attractive, he partnered with the Baltimore Ravens and Orioles sports teams. The boxes are now covered with the teams’ colors and logos. In addition, one out of every 20 boxes has a winning code printed on the bottom. The prizes range from free music downloads to tickets to the teams’ games. In the first 60 days after starting the boxed breakfast option, participation increased more than 400% to reach 35,000 breakfasts served a day.
Geraci says one reason the breakfast program has been a hit is because older students help by assembling boxes and picking up trash. They receive community service hours for their work. “We found the younger kids couldn’t wait to be older so they could run the program,” Geraci says. “We get caught up in the minutia of teaching a test and we forget these are kids and we should be teaching them leadership and community skills.”
Geraci’s first 12 months in the district have not only garnered the attention and respect of his students but also the community. Not bad for a self-professed rule breaker.